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Communications of the ACM

Missing Links: Building Critical Social Ties For Global Collaborative Teamwork

Globally distributed teams have become increasingly common in many sectors. Yet managing dispersed groups is far more challenging than managing co-located teams. Some advances in supporting globally distributed collaborative work have been introduced in recent years mainly in the form of information and communication technologies (ICT). In this regard, the focus of research and practice has traditionally been on the appropriate application of technical and operational mechanisms, such as tools, methodologies and coordination mechanisms that support coordination activities between dispersed project teams. As a supplementary mechanism, which improves collaborative work through the development of interpersonal ties between remote counterparts, firms also advocate face-to-face (F2F) meetings [9, 11]. In this article, we focus on the use of F2F meetings in promoting collaboration between remote counterparts.

The entire project team usually attends these formal meetings, which are designed to address project management and technical issues, as well as to create interpersonal ties and improve collaborative work between remote counterparts [1]. We argue that F2F meetings, though very much needed, still pose challenges to globally distributed teams in creating and sustaining social ties between remote counterparts. Consequently, we propose a set of activities that improves and renews social ties between remote counterparts, before and after F2F meetings. These activities are organized into three stages for developing social ties that we label as: Introduction, Build-up, and Renewal. We briefly summarize evidence from several projects at the software company SAP and oscilloscope manufacturer LeCroy, and we offer practical implications to managers.

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The Challenge of Social Ties

Globally distributed projects consist of two or more teams working together to accomplish project goals from different geographical locations. In addition to geographical dispersion, globally distributed teams face time zone and cultural differences that may include, but are not limited to, different languages, national traditions, values, and norms of behavior [1]. To cope with such differences and to ensure a smooth collaborative mode of operation between remote counterparts, numerous technical and operational mechanisms have been offered to managers, including collaborative technologies (such as groupware technologies that include email and instant messaging [2, 10, 12]) and coordination mechanisms (such as more explicit, documented, and formalized project processes through standardizing and documenting the development methodology, and through the division of work aimed at reducing the need for inter-site coordination and communications [4, 6]).

Thus far, the solutions proposed to support collaborative work of globally distributed teams have been technical in nature, paying little attention to the human and social aspects involved in such settings [3]. The few studies that have focused on social aspects in globally distributed projects have suggested that firms should promote and hold F2F meetings to tighten interpersonal ties between remote counterparts in an attempt to improve collaborative work [7, 8, 11]. Indeed, creating and renewing social ties between remote counterparts may even open additional channels, supplementary to technical solutions, through which collaborative work can be improved. Using F2F meetings to advance social ties in globally distributed teams may also improve the formation of a globally distributed team as members get to know each other during these meetings, learn about cultural differences between team members, discuss and agree on ways to resolve tensions, set up procedures for coordinating work activities, and start working together toward a successful completion of a project [5].

In line with past research [1, 5], we have observed that supporting interpersonal contacts between remote counterparts throughout the project life cycle is rather challenging—creating and renewing such contacts throughout the project life cycle poses a strong challenge for managers. So far, the emphasis from practice and research has been on F2F meetings that set the stage for bonding and socializing between remote counterparts, and as a vehicle for creating social ties between remote counterparts. Nonetheless, we argue that F2F meetings alone may not create the conditions through which interpersonal ties between remote counterparts can be created and renewed. F2F meetings tend to last only a few days, and the agendas for these meetings often revolve around project and technical issues that must be resolved, leaving little space for socialization and one-on-one meetings. In Table 1 we have summarized the emerging challenges in creating social ties between members of globally distributed teams.

While F2F meetings assist in acquainting counterparts of globally distributed teams with each other and addressing project and technical issues, these meetings, being sporadic, short, selective, and formal to a great extent, hardly support the long-term build-up and renewal of interpersonal ties between dispersed counterparts. In the following paragraphs we present evidence from SAP and LeCroy, two companies in which software development teams collaborate globally to develop products. In particular, we focus on before and after F2F meeting activities that contributed to collaborative work through the development of social ties.

While F2F meetings assist in acquainting counterparts of globally distributed teams with each other and addressing project and technical issues, these meetings, being sporadic, short, selective, and formal to a great extent, hardly support the long-term build-up and renewal of interpersonal ties between dispersed counterparts.

The Collaborative Tools project at SAP was located at three sites: Germany, India, and the U.S. When the project was launched in September 2001, the key players (managers and architects) and team members from remote locations did not know each other. Before F2F meetings, activities revolved mainly around creating awareness of the composition of remote teams and their members. Videoconferencing sessions were scheduled between the three locations to introduce the remote counterparts to each other. Furthermore, global mini-teams were formed, consisting of technical staff from different remote locations who jointly worked on one design module. These mini-teams also needed to communicate with other mini-teams to ensure a smooth integration of the different modules. For each mini-team a contact person was appointed. The contact people were senior technical staff located in Germany. These contact people were responsible for providing and communicating information about the design and integration processes to their mini-teams. Since the remote counterparts did not know each other and the process of becoming acquainted took, in some cases, several weeks, this structure of mini-teams and contact persons was critical in ensuring a smooth flow of information between remote teams.

F2F meetings were organized to make time for one-to-one interactions between remote counterparts so that they could get to know each other and become familiar with communication styles. These activities included team-building exercises, and discussions about communication styles and about rules for communications between individuals and teams. These activities assisted in creating interpersonal ties, relaxing tensions, and improving understanding between remote counterparts.

After F2F meetings, activities included regular and frequent communications, such as teleconferences and videoconferences between software managers and developers, and short visits to remote locations. In particular, when newcomers joined, managers organized videoconferences to introduce new team members. However, to ensure that remote counterparts would stay in touch, speak the same "lingo," and feel comfortable working remotely, managers traveled to remote sites at least once every three months, and developers visited remote sites a few times a year. These activities reportedly improved the bonding between remote counterparts and enhanced the collaborative atmosphere across the team.

The project studied at LeCroy, called Maui, was distributed across two sites: Switzerland and the U.S. These software team members had a long history of working together; thus, when this study was carried out, the team had already developed strategies for working together across distance. However, the Maui project, which involved switching to Microsoft COM technology, introduced new challenges, since the LeCroy software engineers were using new technologies to develop embedded software. Therefore, one of the dilemmas LeCroy faced while developing the Maui platform was how to jointly train embedded programmers located at different sites, while ensuring the transition would not trigger disruptive communication problems and breakdowns.

Pre-F2F meeting activities included transatlantic videoconferences in which newcomers were introduced to the team. To reduce language barriers, software engineers in Geneva, whose native language is French, were offered English language lessons. Overcoming language barriers, in addition to the introduction of remote counterparts through videoconferences, was a key factor in creating direct and effective communication channels between remote counterparts. The videoconferences furthermore helped increase team member awareness of communication styles rooted in cultural differences, and reminded them to be attentive to the style and content of communications.

Several F2F meetings were held by this distributed team. A key F2F meeting in a remote Alps location combined training sessions in Microsoft COM technology with social events allowing participants to get to know each other better.

Post-F2F meeting activities included frequent communications between the remote sites in the form of teleconferences, videoconferences, and visits by managers from Geneva and N.Y. several times a year. Short visits and the temporary co-location of software engineers also took place, so remote counterparts could work and solve design problems together, as well as improve interpersonal contacts. Lastly, a wide range of collaborative technologies employed in daily communications allowed remote counterparts to combine audio and visual cues, by undertaking design reviews using application sharing tools and the telephone simultaneously, for example. While these activities reduced miscommunications and breakdowns and improved collaboration during the design process, several team members reported that the sense of bonding, which was strong right after a F2F meeting, faded away, often leading to miscommunications and tension between remote counterparts. To overcome this situation, managers organized videoconferences with the entire software development team, followed by a F2F meeting between the engineers involved in the particular assignment. These activities were carried out in addition to regular short visits and relocations in an attempt to renew interpersonal ties between remote counterparts.

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Implications: The Life cycle of Social Ties

The before, during, and after F2F meeting activities described here provide insights into the way SAP and LeCroy supplemented collaborative tools and methodologies with human-related activities to ensure the build-up and renewal of social ties between remote counterparts. The experiences we have described suggest that firms benefit from shifting the traditional focus on F2F meetings as the main vehicle through which interpersonal ties are created, to include before and after F2F meeting activities.

Managers should consider the full lifecycle of social ties when they plan and execute collaborative work between remote sites. The life cycle of social ties consists of three stages: Introduction, Build-up and Renewal (as shown in the figure here). Each stage represents an array of activities that a globally distributed team can participate in to move from the Introduction stage to the Build-up of social ties, and finally to the Renewal phase, in which social ties are renewed after F2F meetings.

LeCroy, for example, invested in activities associated with the Renewal stage. SAP, on the other hand, mainly invested in activities associated with the Introduction and Build-Up stages. Most companies will tend to engage in activities associated with the Introduction stage to introduce newcomers when a new project is assembled.

What implications does this study have for team development? In line with past research we have observed that development of globally distributed teams faces unique challenges induced by geographical and cultural differences, thus requiring management's intervention in supporting the timely development of a team from "forming, through storming and norming to performing" [5]. Furthermore, from a social ties perspective, we observed that our globally distributed teams had to "re-norm" from time to time, mainly because newcomers joined and changed the dynamics of interpersonal ties within dispersed teams. In addition, disagreements and miscommunications arose even in late stages of the project due to fading interpersonal ties. For this reason, we recommend that managers consider "re-norming" dispersed teams and renewing social ties through bonding activities, such as short visits or F2F meetings—both in the early stages of the team development and the later stages, when social ties may fade and affect collaborative work.

To act upon the model noted here, managers could consider various activities at the individual, team, and organizational levels (see Table 2). Activities within each level contribute to the development of social interactions across the entire organization. For example, language lessons offered at the introductory stage are likely to contribute to one-on-one interactions when the build-up of social ties is taking place, and these lessons will also support direct communications when ties are renewed.

Prior to introducing specific activities, managers should ascertain the dispersed team's current stage. Teams in the Introduction stage, for example, require different types of activity to support the build-up of social ties than teams in the Renewal stage. Furthermore, as the project progresses and remote counterparts get to know each other and establish a collaborative mode, renewing these social ties may require only a subset of the activities offered in Table 2. In this regard, the activities offered in Table 2 are not a recipe for building and renewing social ties but rather represent a set of possibilities from which managers can choose when attempting to strengthen social ties between team members. Comprised of a unique assortment of unique individuals, each team differs in how it bonds with others, thus requiring a different set of activities that support the renewal of these social ties. It is the manager's responsibility to sense, analyze, and apply the most appropriate and timely activity, to ensure that social ties are renewed, and collaborative work is improved [5].

Lastly, the renewal and the strengthening of interpersonal relationships may benefit from staffing project teams based on their shared past experience in addition to their set of skills and expertise. Through such considerations, firms may reduce the costs associated with the initial development of social ties and focus more on activities that aim at renewing interpersonal relationships.

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Ilan Oshri ( is an associate professor of strategy and technology management at the Rotterdam School of Management in Erasmus, the Netherlands.

Julia Kotlarsky ( is an assistant professor of information systems at the Warwick Business School in Coventry, U.K.

Leslie Willcocks ( is a professor of work, technology, and globalization at the London School of Economics and Political Science, U.K.

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F1Figure 1. The life cycle of social ties.

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T1Table 1. The challenges of social ties and F2F meetings.

T2Table 2. Individual, team, and organizational activities supporting social ties.

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